The Psychology and Spirituality of Compassion


By Jayaram V

Summary: This essay is about the meaning and practice of compassion (Karuna) in human life, with specific reference to its spiritual importance in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

When you think others are happier than you, you may not feel good,. But when you see that no one is free from suffering, you will feel compassion. Buddhavac

Compassion is the culmination of the refinement of human character. It manifests in a person after he attains certain mental and spiritual awareness. It is an integral and important aspect of humanity, divinity and spirituality. The virtue of compassion is practiced in all world religions under different names as an important spiritual quality for the refinement of human character and expressing the humanity which is natural but mostly remains hidden in most of people. The practice of nonviolence (ahimsa), friendliness (mitrata or metta), empathy, charity, selfless service and unconditional love are closely associated with compassion.

Compassion makes people go out of their way to feel for others and help them deal with their problems, overcome physical or emotional hurt, or better themselves physically, mentally or spiritually to live with increased responsiveness, helpful nature and sensitivity. Compassion arises from openness, sensitivity, attentiveness, sense of justice and fairness. Although it seems to be a matter of heart and an emotional issue, compassion arises from rational thought, knowledge, wisdom, observation, sound judgment and a clear understanding of the ways of the world and the suffering which is inherent in the entire existence.


The literal meaning of compassion (com + passus) in Latin is suffering together or suffering along with others or for others. In English, it originally meant showing or feeling love or passion to others. It also said to be related in origin to the English word patient, (the suffering person) thereby lending credence to the theory that the word originated in relation to sick people or ailing people.

True compassion arises when one genuinely feels for others or their problems or suffering and positively makes a genuine attempt or initiative to help them. Sympathy, empathy, kindness, concern, consideration are different aspects of compassionate behavior, with subtle differences. Compassion is not just a feeling. It is a part of a general attitude or mindset or helping nature, which results in helpful, supportive or remedial actions.

Truly, compassionate people just do not sit by and watch others suffering. They try to do something about it within their capacity and zone of influence in response to it. In some cases people make great sacrifices, ignoring their interests, and become role models to others. Whether they help others or not, most spiritual people tend to be compassionate and sensitive to the feelings and suffering of others. Sometimes, they give up their own comforts and personal feelings to accommodate others.

The psychology of compassion

Compassion is closely related to love because without love, it is difficult to experience compassion. We experience compassion towards people with whom we have a physical or mental affinity. When we extend that feeling to a great many people and other living beings and generalize it, it becomes a universal feeling which is exemplified by many saints and spiritual masters in their lives.

From an evolutionary perspective, compassion seems to be a part of our survival instinct. It is a common behavior among not only humans but also many mammals. In Nature it seems compassion, or an identical feeling drives humans as well as animals in the parenting and bonding process, transcending their natural and instinctive desire for self-preservation. It also probably drives them to live in groups to protect themselves and others from common threats and improve their chances of survival.

Surely, compassion makes people care for their family, friends and children, and helps them in their collective survival. It is not uncommon for people to show false sympathy or superficial compassion with pretentious behavior to win the approval, appreciation or acceptance of others or gain some tangible benefit or advantage.

Politicians and people in public life frequently resort to this behavior to preserve their power and status or to present themselves in positive light. When such pretenses are not matched by appropriate actions, people see through that deception and feel betrayed. Hence, the common wisdom, "A friend in need is a friend indeed." Anyone can speak words of compassion and show sympathy as part of one's impression management and social behavior, but the real test is whether the body language and the actions match with the words and feelings expressed.

True love and friendship survive on the foundation of compassion. Love brings people together, but it is compassion which sustains their relationships and prompts them to make personal sacrifices to adjust, adapt and accommodate according to the needs and demands of the relationship. When it is absent, relationships crumble. Many marriages end up in divorces when the couple stop being sensitive and responsive to each other's feelings and need for love, support and belongingness.

One of the commons beliefs about compassion is that it is a variant of love, which makes people empathize with others and feel their suffering and distress. Love itself is a part of the survival instinct which helps the beings in the propagation of their species. Just as compassion, love helps humans as well as many animals to live in groups and socialize with others, adapting themselves to the group needs and social norms.

Since most human behavior is common it is not difficult to feel other people’s feelings and see life from their perspective. It also helps them detect and discriminate true love and compassion from their pretentious counterparts. In most cases, compassion is a conditional and reciprocal feeling, which one person shows to another when that person meets with certain conditions, obligations and expectations.

Since it depends upon many psychological factors, the intensity of compassion varies from person to person and situation to situation. It is uncertain, unpredictable and less reliable. Hence, all people are not equally capable of compassion, as one can see the evidence of it in personal relationships and on message boards and social networks. As stated above most people feel compassion for different reasons and in different situations according to their personal needs, desires and expectations.

Four factors seem to be at work in evoking the feelings of compassion in people namely perception, self-awareness, shared identity and imagination. Those who are attentive and good at observation have better chances of experiencing it. Secondly, if you have self-awareness and are sensitive to your own feelings and behavior, you have better chances of feeling other people's feeling and become sensitive to them. Feeling compassion to oneself is a desirable virtue which will save from extreme behavior and self-destructive habits.

Shared identify is another important aspect. One must perceive a personal connection or a shared identity with others to experience compassion. For example, people tend to show more compassion and sympathy towards those who belong to the same country, culture, religion, ideology or social identity but less towards those who invoke in them the feelings of "them" rather than "us." Compassion for others is also proportionately more intense when the subject is a victim of circumstances rather than his own self-inflicted wounds. Compassion may produce stress in the initial stages, when the people feel the suffering, but when one perceives one's own suffering and feels compassion it becomes deeply relieving and cathartic.

The spirituality of compassion

From a spiritual perspective, compassion is a form of suffering only. It is suffering which arises at the thought of other people's suffering. It is more acute when one sees one's loved ones suffering. Compassion as a virtue grows stronger in people, as their understanding of life and human suffering deepens, and as they increasingly transcend their self-centeredness to think of others and feel their suffering as their own. When one sees others as they see themselves, as fellow travelers in the journey of life, having their problems and concerns for survival, the feeling of compassion naturally grows.

However, compassion which is based upon conditions, desires, expectations and attachments is wavering and uncertain. It is also inferior and rarely benefits people in their spiritual journey or the refinement of their character, behavior or thinking. People who are engaged in spirituality should aim to cultivate universal and unconditional compassion which radiates in all directions without motive, purpose or agenda. That compassion is superior, which deepens due to inner refinement of character and feelings of universality and which spontaneously arises as a natural expression of oneself.

The idea is one should cultivate universal compassion for all, not only for friends, family and community but also for people across cultures and countries. It should also be extended to include all living beings, not just humans, since they too go through suffering and the harshness of life in their own ways. Neither the environmental policies nor the government intervention can save this planet from indiscriminate destruction and self-inflicted harm, unless people cultivate compassion and become guardians of the planet and all life.

Can compassion be cultivated? The answer is certainly yes. Compassion can be cultivated by focusing upon the four factors we mentioned before namely perception, self-awareness, shared identity and imagination or thinking. By closely observing life, by understanding one's own feelings and suffering, by contemplating upon the causes and remedies of suffering and how the beings suffer, and by overcoming personal barriers such as selfishness, desires, attachments, expectations, egoism, etc., one can certainly intensify feelings of compassion.

Compassion seems to grow in proportion to our knowledge of the world and our exposure to the varied conditions through to survive and succeed in this unpredictable and uncertain world. Movies, literature and other art form, which depict human suffering in its extreme form also deep our compassion and feelings for the suffering of others. Our knowledge of events such as holocaust, slavery, colonial brutality, imperialism, the brutality of wars and aggression, genocides, epidemics and endemics, dictatorships, and our exposure to such traumatic events also evoke in us similar feelings.

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